What hidden dangers are in your office?
There are those jobs–such as coal mining and working with asbestos–that we all recognize as inherently dangerous. These are high exposure jobs where workers are in constant contact with hazardous materials, and where the slightest mistake could mean the difference between life and death. Most people don’t consider your average office to be quite in the same league.
However, while today’s offices don’t have the same types of hazards as industrial work sites, they are far from harmless. In fact, working in your average office could put you at risk for exposure to several hazardous materials. This is especially true if you are working out of an older home because homes are not typically subject to the same sorts of stringent inspections that commercial buildings and office spaces are.
Hazardous Materials in the Workplace…
Many buildings across the U.S. contain materials made from asbestos. Asbestos was used widely as a building material in the U.S. until the 1970s when it became clear that it caused severe health problems. Asbestos was used in everything from roofing to floor tiles, and was also used as an insulator in and around furnaces and boilers. When materials that contain asbestos remain intact, they are fairly harmless. However, if those materials become damaged or broken, they can release asbestos fibers into the air, where they can be inhaled or ingested. Once those fibers get into your body, they adhere to the lining of your lungs, stomach, and throat. Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers puts people at risk for asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related diseases.
If you work from home, and you own your home, you probably do not have to worry too much about this because you would have found and been notified about asbestos during your home inspection. If you rent an older house or an apartment in an older building, though, be careful. Make sure that you (and your family members and anybody who might work out of your home with you) stay away from any insulated areas like attics and basements.
Radon is another potential hazard, especially if your office is located in an older home. Radon is a radioactive gas that is released naturally from the rocks and soil. Radon is odorless and tasteless, and there’s no way to really know that it’s there unless you specifically test your home or office. Radon can seep into a building through cracks in the foundation, at construction joints, through gaps and cavities, and through the water supply. Many modern buildings are built to prevent radon from getting in – even if there’s a break in the foundation. However older buildings might not have the same protection. Prolonged exposure can cause lung cancer.
If you haven’t had a radon inspection in a while and you own an older home (or work out of an office in a converted older home), now is the time to schedule one. It’s also a good idea to get your foundation checked periodically, just in case.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that occurs in combustion fumes. In buildings carbon monoxide is most commonly the result of a poorly-vented furnace, gas fireplace, or gas water heater. Carbon monoxide can also seep into buildings from poorly-insulated garages.
Unlike the other substances, the health effects of carbon monoxide are immediate and life-threatening. Carbon monoxide bonds with your red blood cells, preventing them from picking up oxygen, which can result in suffocation. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poising include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and chest pain.
It’s possible for there to be a slow carbon monoxide leak that is enough to make you feel ill, but not enough to cause suffocation.
Make sure you know what to do if you think that you have been exposed to carbon monoxide. Teach your kids and any employees who might work out of your home with you how to recognize the signs of exposure in themselves and in others and what to do if they suspect that carbon monoxide might be the culprit.
Unlike carbon monoxide, natural gas is not odorless – the utility company adds a chemical specifically to give it an odor. Like carbon monoxide, exposure to it can have immediate health effects. Natural gas is also dangerous because it is extremely flammable and has the potential to explode.
What to do if You’re Exposed
When it comes to asbestos and radon, chances are you will have no way of knowing if you were exposed. However, if you suspect that an area of your office contains broken asbestos, or has a radon leak, you should first contact your manager, human resources, or building management and stay away from the suspected area. If you are certain that these materials are present, and your employer has not responded to your concerns, you can also contact your local office of the Environmental Protection Agency.
If you are the business owner, or manager, you should be aware of whether or not asbestos is present in your building, and should periodically check for radon leaks. You should also have a plan in place for the safe removal of these hazardous substances.
Regarding carbon monoxide, if you notice that spending time in certain parts of the building make you feel nauseous and dizzy, and especially if other people are also affected, discuss your concerns with your manager, human resources, or the building manager, and leave the suspected area.
If you are the business owner, or manager, you should make sure that you have carbon monoxide detectors around the workplace. Some carbon monoxide detectors come packaged with smoke detectors and security systems.
Regarding natural gas, if you smell gas anywhere in the building, contact your manager, human resources, or the building manager, and vacate the building as quickly as possible.
If you are the business owner, or manager, you should call the fire department and make sure everyone exits the building. As the one in charge, you should also make sure that your business and/or building insurance policy covers potential damage and injury from exposure to hazardous materials.
If you work out of your home or garage, make sure you know the protocols for reporting problems like gas leaks or radon detection to your city or county. It’s also a good idea to get riders for these potential problems attached to your homeowner’s and business owner’s insurance.